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I’m Really Tired of ‘Pew Pew’ Magic

Elora Danan (Ellie Bamber) in 'Willow'

I’m loving Willow on Disney+. It’s fun, it’s pretty, the characters are all interesting, and there’s nothing like a good ol’ fashioned epic quest to while away the winter months. I especially like Elora (Ellie Bamber)’s evolution from doe-eyed kitchen maid to capable sorceress. There’s a montage in episode 7, “Beyond the Shattered Sea,” that shows everyone honing their combat skills by sparring with each other. Elora and Willow practice magic with their wands, shooting and dodging energy blasts. It’s satisfying to see Elora grow more confident in her magic skills.

Except … I felt like I’d watched that scene before.

Oh, yeah—it’s in the series finale of WandaVision, when Wanda and Agatha are dueling by shooting energy beams at each other. WandaVision is one of the best stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that particular scene is tragic because Wanda has already shown herself to be the most powerful magic user in the world. When the whole show is about conjuring false realities and getting in people’s heads, why does the finale collapse into a big light show? (And yes, I know the battle has some other stuff going on, too. Agatha tries to siphon Wanda’s power and Wanda traps Agatha with runes, but visually, it’s all pyrotechnics.)

But WandaVision wasn’t even the first time I’d seen that kind of magical duel. In Harry Potter, curses function more or less like blasters in Star Wars, with wands shooting projectile magic.

So often, combat magic is portrayed as a kind of metaphysical laser gun. You point your wand or your hand at someone, and—pew pew!—you try to take out your opponent by hitting them with a light beam. But combat magic could be so much more! Part of what makes fantasy so great is that literally anything is possible, and that principle still stands when you’re trying to kick someone’s ass.

It’s not like we don’t have plenty of great examples to draw from. There’s the Finnish epic the Kalevala, which contains one of my favorite magical duels of all time. In Book 3, “The Singing Match,” the cunning man Väinämöinen spars with a younger magician by singing spells that turn his arrows into hawks and his dog into stone, and sends the magician himself literally into the ground. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, magic is determined by knowing the true names of things, which gives the magic system a philosophical undertone. And in series like Avatar: The Last Airbender and in the Grishaverse, characters use magic by manipulating the elements. One of my favorite moments in Avatar is when Katara learns the macabre art of bloodbending, which is a logical extension of the waterbending that she’s used to. It’s a fascinating (though unsettling) combat tactic that arises naturally out of Avatar’s established magic system.

More recently, The Sandman on Netflix depicted a clever form of magic in the scene in which Morpheus and Lucifer play the Oldest Game. During that duel (which can also be found in the original comics), Morpheus and Lucifer imagine various ways to best each other. Lucifer imagines themself as a dire wolf, Morpheus imagines himself as a hunter, and the fight culminates in them imagining themselves as anti-life and hope. That duel explores the outer limits of what magic—as a means of harnessing and changing reality—can do.

I know energy blasts aren’t the extent of Elora’s magic in Willow. Her very first spell, in fact, is making a plant grow. But I hope that the season finale will see her getting more creative with her spells. After all, if I want to watch people fighting with laser beams and electrical blasts, I can turn to science fiction.

(featured image: Lucasfilm)

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Julia Glassman (she/her) lives in Los Angeles, where she reads tarot and watches Marvel movies. You can check out more of her writing at linktr.ee/juliaglassman, or find her on Twitter at @juliaglassman.